Biotech Breakthroughs: Coffee Edition

Are you reading this coffee in hand? You’re probably not alone. Coffee is the third most-consumed drink in the world (it falls just behind water and tea). However, all that java adds up to a grinding global demand for coffee beans – 22 billion pounds a year and growing rapidly! Coffee beans are produced mainly in high elevation and heat environments along the “bean belt”. However, these areas are warming and changing, creating many production problems.

Map of Coffee Production. AndrewMT, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The escalating demand for coffee combined with climate change is taking a toll on producers and their surrounding communities. To simultaneously expand, adapt, and still competitively price their products, some coffee farms are being forced to cut corners. The worst scenarios result in exploited farmworkers, detrimental land-use practices, and violations of land rights. The best scenarios still mean businesses that are walking a razor-thin profit line and struggling with expansion.

Enter biotechnology! Innovations are helping producers adjust to changing conditions, quickly expand crops, and even find new places for coffee production. Here are three examples of scientists finding ways to best bring you that next cup of caffeine.

Coffee Plant. Jmhullot, CC BY-SA 3.0

Expanding the Genetic Horizon – Cultivated coffee species are very closely related. This can lead to problems with inbreeding and hinder adaption. Plant geneticists of all kinds are working to expand this genetic base. Some are lacing up their hiking boots and exploring remote tropical regions to locate wild coffee species. Others are carefully cataloging and caring for these discoveries in global seed and tissue banks. Still others are mapping the genomes of both cultivated and wild species to identify key traits for breeding and best candidates for cross-breeding.

Plant Tissue Culture. Syed Sajidul Islam, CC BY-SA 4.0

Planting the Next Generation – Growing a new coffee crop is hard. Planted seeds have a notoriously uneven and low germination rate and grow extremely slowly. The popular farming alternative of using cuttings is also difficult. Coffee cuttings don’t travel well (they’re disease-prone and touch-sensitive) and also have a low multiplication rate. Consequently, many farmers are turning to in vitro techniques such as tissue cultures where new plants are grown in a sterile growth media from the cut stems/leaves/buds of adult plants.

General structure of a stirring bioreactor. GYassineMrabetTalk✉, CC BY-SA 3.0

Brewing Cell Coffee – Technically all coffee comes from cells. Often these cells are found in coffee beans that have been harvested from plants and then roasted. But a Finnish lab is going about the problem a little differently. The VTT lab headed by Dr. Rischer has developed several coffee cell lines chosen for their diverse flavor profile and lab growability. The lab has now scaled up several of these cell lines so that the cells can be grown in large bioreactors with a low-cost nutrient media. Once grown, the coffee cells are harvested, dried, roasted, and brewed. The results according to taste testers – bold and complex.

Ready to add some plant genetics to your class curriculum? Check out our hands-on experiments! There’s even one where you can use cell culture techniques to grow your own African violet, Venus flytrap, or coffee plant In vitro!  

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